Source: Open Access Results in Increased Scholarship of English Broadside Ballads

Broadside ballads were the most circulated printed objects in England during the 17th century [1]. Sung by hawkers on street corners, pasted on the walls of alehouses, and framed as art by the middling and lower classes, the broadside ballad carried the news of day, tales of fantastical events and adventures, as well as political commentary to all sectors of British society. And yet, despite their ubiquity and importance to the popular culture of their day, the broadside ballad has, until recently, been largely ignored by literary and cultural scholars.

Maligned most famously by Shakespeare [2] as the exemplar of “low” culture, ballads historically failed to capture the attention of those invested in the formation of an “high” cultural canon. However, even as literary and cultural studies, beginning in the later half of the 20th century, actively worked to disrupt this canon, lack of access to surviving 17th century broadsides severely limited their study. Their large size and mixed media presentation, including text, image, and music, made the production of representative printed editions cost prohibitive, and the few collections that were reproduced and made available as microfilm, provided a poor, low-quality representation that fell far from approximating an experience of the original. This lack of access to either the original artifacts or quality reproductions resulted in a significant blind-spot in our understanding of 17th century european culture.

The advent of the digital archive changed this. In 1995, the Bodleian library, an early adopter of digital technologies, made available to the public via the World Wide Web their entire collection of broadside ballads <>. This marked the first, important step in providing open, public access to this body of work. Then, in 2003, the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) <> set out to make the remaining extant 17th century broadside ballads freely available to the general public. The first collection mounted by EBBA included black and white photographs of the ballads held in the Pepy’s Library, Cambridge, along with full-text transcriptions and recordings of all of the ballads being sung as they would have been at the time of their release (where EBBA’s musicologist was able to definitively identify the music to which the ballad would have been sung). Since this initial effort, EBBA has continued to refine its cataloguing and archival practices, switched from black and white to high resolution, full-color photography, and expanded to include holdings at the British Library, the Huntington Library, and the National Library of Scotland in the archive. At the time of this writing, EBBA makes freely available just over 55% of all extant English broadside ballads from the 17th century. And the archive continuous to grow. EBBA recently received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to include the collections of Harvard’s Houghton Library and the Yale’s Beinecke Library in the archive, and EBBA hopes to make all extant 17th century English broadside ballads available to the public by 2020.

The open-access provided by these archives has had a significant impact on the landscape of 17th century literary and cultural scholarship. According to the MLA Index, in the decade from 1990-1999, there were 33 scholarly articles published on the topic of broadside ballads. In the ten years from 2000-2009, this number jumped to 46. And in the two years from 2010-2012, 29 articles were published, representing a publication rate that projects (even without accounting for a continued growth curve) a total of just over 70 publications by the end of the decade: a 42% increase from the previous decade, and a 53% increase from the decade prior to the launch of EBBA. This rise in scholarly attention highlights the importance of making cultural artifacts digitally available to the public through free, open-access archives. Is is only through such efforts that we can fully come to know and, more importantly, understand our cultural heritage.

[1] See Nebeker, Eric. The Heyday of the Broadside Ballad and Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Particularly pp 10-12.

[2] See, for example, All’s Well that Ends Well, Act I, Scene III, lines 377-381 and Act II, Scene 1, lines 781-785; Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene II, lines 3657-3660; Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene 5, lines 783-787; Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene I, lines 1671-1678; and Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene I, lines 223-227.